We’re reading VURT by Jeff Noon

17 Apr

Nan Craig reports from the other side of a twenty-year-old looking glass:


Jeff Noon
Tor, HB £16.99

Vurt appeared in the spring of 1993, won the Clarke Award, and promptly changed the lives of a number of many people (especially, it seems, writers), who read it in the formative years of their lives and immediately recognised that it was not only linguistically and imaginatively original, but that it spoke intimately to their own experience of the world. I wasn’t one of these lucky people. (In my defence, in the spring of 1993 I was ten).

The plot is impossible to describe succinctly. Trying to explain it to my dad over a dodgy Skype connection was interesting: “There’s this boy, and there are these feathers, and they’re like drugs, and they’re different colours, and they take you to another world, and there are aliens, and the boy has lost this girl he loves and he’s trying to get her back…” All the time, my pixelated dad mouthing “Just tell me the back cover blurb!” That didn’t really help, either. Noon has said that he’s heavily influenced by Lewis Carroll, and trying to describe the plot of Vurt is like trying to describe the plot of Alice Through The Looking Glass (“Oh, there’s this little girl, and she’s lost, and there are queens and knights and twins and a talking sheep…”) For all the slightly cyberpunky atmosphere, and all its talk of aliens and hybrids and virtual worlds, structurally and in sensibility it’s more closely related to the Alice books than it is to, say, Neuromancer. It is itself a dream, and its logic is dream-logic. Giant violet-and-green dreamsnakes, dangerous yellow feathers, loved-up hippies conjoined by their dreads, dog-men, droid-people: surprisingly little of this is “virtual”: reality here is more dream-like than the dream.

At the same time, people who read the book when it first came out say how important it was to them that it was set in a world they recognised, and this is still true. The daily details still work: when they’re not trying to reach altered states of consciousness, the characters sit at jam-smeary kitchen tables, drive around in vans with dodgy suspension, hang out in messy high-rise flats. You don’t need to have grown up in the Nineties for this to work for you (although if you did, there’s a pleasant, nostalgic feel to be got from seeing teenagers in plaid dresses and crop-tops). You don’t even need to be from Manchester.

The twentieth anniversary edition, published last week, is an attractive hardback. It comes with Beukes’s introduction as well as three extra short stories set in the same world. The stories are nice to have if you’re looking for an extra hit, but the novel itself is the point. It’s still fresh and original; however much it has inspired later works, it doesn’t feel like it’s been outdated or overtaken by them. A whole new generation of readers are about to have their minds twisted.

Lucky us.

Read Nan Craig’s story “Scapmetal” in Afterparty Overdrive (Arc 1.3), out now for tablets, phones and screens and in a collector’s print edition.

And look out for Jeff Noon’s story “Vapours” in the new edition of Arc, out soon.

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